Netbooks – the necessary new design test-tool

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Writing this on my Lenovo S10e netbook, I am furious. It’s before mid-day and yet I have had two experiences of software designs that did not consider netbooks a platform – or at least the new low screen resolution these computers imply. And before you call me a whiner (besides the fact that you’d be somewhat right), this is just a description of the changes I will make to include netbook users as an audience of software and website in the future.

Whine #1: Twice I’ve been cripled by software that saw the low screen resolution as a handicap – one of them on purpose. First I installed Pidgin – the cool cross-platform/cross-protocol IM and IRC client. I like it a lot, but on Windows some dialogs are too big and will not allow me to navigate to the OK/Cancel buttons at the bottomof the settings dialog. Fortunately this is Open Source stuff, so I can just participate and actively fix this myself.

Whine #2: I had to install a printer driver for my HP Photosmart 2575 printer – the install took over one hour because of some “ingenious” package system. That obviously poor user experience decision aside – the minimum requirement for the printer driver is a screen resolution of 800×600 pixels. My S10e runs at 1024 x 576. The consequence – I cannot print from my netbook in Windows because the printer driver won’t finish installing, as it has an irrelevant requirement. Fortunately I am dual-booting with Ubuntu, which has excellent support for my printer (without the requirement)

I’ve read somewhere that 20% of all computers that will be sold in 2009 will be netbooks. Some producers (including Asus) will stop production of 8.9″ -screen netbooks. The 10-inchers seems to dominate right now, and probably for the rest of the year (note: my guess only). Every company designing software will have to take this into account before they ship the next version of any product with a user interface.

I’ve worked on so many web projects with art directors saying: “Nobody runs 640×480 or 800×600 anymore”. Hey we know – but do you know how many users run with their browser maximized because a designer thought up a design that required it? Web designers don’t own the real estate of the users screen resolution – they can only hope to own the area the browser is sized to – and you have to count on users having at least one open history/bookmarks sidebar and/or plug-in and/or Google/MSN/Web developer toolbar enabled.

My point should be rather obvious: It is vital to include netbooks as testplatforms for serious UI-designers or your product will no longer be compatible with the equipment of the customers you want. The rules have changed – live with it.

You may argue that netbook users are asking for it, but if the competing website or software support the netbooks and you don’t – the users is no longer making the decision of leaving you.

Netbooks growing up

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ideapad s10_red

This post is written on my new netbook – a Lenovo ideapad s10e. Actually I had given up on netbooks. My first one was an Asus EEE PC 900 with SSD and that machine was a serious disappointment. I have always liked Asus hardware, mainly because it is extremly well updated with software. That was also the case with the eee 900, but in order to make it cheap enough a cut was made on the CPU and on the keyboard. Actually I think I could live with the somewhat slow Dothan CPU (Celeron’ish), but combined with the poor keyboard the experience was like:

I don’t know if the machine refuses to react on my keypress because the stroke wasn’t registered on the keyboard or because I am waiting for the CPU.

That is of course not acceptable. So the too-cheap netbook has been gathering dust for a while now.

Some colleagues also purchased netbooks. One of them a Medion Akoya (looks very much like the MSI Wind – which 95% of the hardware probably is). It had an Intel Atom processor, which seems to do A LOT for these small laptops. The price did get an extra nudge compared to the Asus eee PC 900, but that can actually mean the difference between a usable and an unusable netbook.

The Lenovo machine is Atom-based, responsive and so far a really really nice piece of machinery. I dual-boot Windows and Ubuntu Linux on it and have yet to encounter missing drivers or missing responsiveness from the keyboard.

As with anything, you get what you pay for and you actually don’t have to pay that much more for a netbook that actually behaves as you would expect.